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Putting a Health Care Perspective on Global Competition

In the race to live longer, healthier lives, we can and must take the steps to be far more competitive than we currently are.
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A lot of people wonder why a nation that is largely ambivalent toward the sport of soccer much of the time is witnessing sky-high television ratings and packed sports bars for the United States' World Cup games. I think it is, in part, because the U.S. hasn't built the same reputation in soccer that is enjoyed by many of our global counterparts. It's rare for our country to feel the excitement of being the 'little guy' in a sport, striving to knock off soccer's global goliaths.

When it comes to other head-to-head international comparisons, we are unfortunately far from being the little guys... and girls.

If there was a World Cup for obesity and the adverse health conditions associated with it, the United States would be the defending champion and a heavy (no pun intended) favorite to repeat. It's a distressing fact that in a competition in which the prizes are severe health problems and shortened lives, it's U-S-A all the way.

Just take a look at the scoreboard:

• In the sheer number of citizens who can be categorized as obese, the United States has nearly 87 million. Our closest competitor is China. Even with a much larger overall population, however, there are just 62 million obese Chinese.

• In looking at one of the factors that lead to obesity, the United States is the clear leader in the number of fast food restaurants with a whopping 7.52 of these establishments for every 100,000 citizens. When it comes to having an opportunity to ingest huge amounts of calories and fat content in one sitting, no one can touch us.

• We're not unbeaten, though. In body mass index, Kuwait actually holds the world's top spot. Not to worry, though, the United States is number two and striving to move up.

I'm being facetious here, but in reality this is a serious and disturbing subject. We worry a great deal about the high cost of American health care. The aforementioned categories are dominant drivers of those costs. The United States spends more than 80 cents of every health care dollar caring for people with diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions that are directly tied to obesity. As we make ourselves the physically biggest people in the world, we're also making ourselves the least healthy and paying a hefty price, in both pocketbook and well-being, for doing so.

And just as the United States soccer organization has built a team that could survive the so-called "Group of Death" and make it into the final stages of the World Cup, so should our nation take the steps to move up from the bottom of the health and wellness standings and become one of the world's healthier societies.

It's very doable and it needs to happen on multiple fronts. Schools need to teach kids at a young age the basic tenets of nutrition and healthy behaviors. Workplaces need to build upon the progress being made with employees on wellness programs and incentives, and public policies should enable and reward those who participate and programs like Medicare must provide coverage for a range of programs including behavior modification and prescription drug coverage to address obesity among seniors.

I'm not going to predict how far the United States is going to go in the World Cup. After all, we're still competing against the long-time giants of the soccer pitch. I do believe, though, in the race to live longer, healthier lives, we can and must take the steps to be far more competitive than we currently are.